Libraries, Museums, and the “Core Infrastructure of the Good Life”

Jana Hill
Jana Hill

This Forum Update was provided by Jana Hill, Digital Engagement Manager, Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Jana received a 2014 DLF Forum Museum Cross-Pollinator Fellowship.

As a museum technologist (albeit one with a library background), I wasn’t sure what to expect from my first DLF Forum. I entered the museum world with a passion for art and a freshly-minted MLS over a decade ago, thrilled at the opportunities that awaited me (I get to touch the art whenever I want!). But I was also disappointed to be leaving a field that had so thoroughly embraced technology and “the user,” two components of librarianship that had really piqued my interest.

Fast forward to the 2014 DLF Forum in Atlanta. By the time Bethany Nowviskie wrapped up her keynote, I knew that libraries and museums were finally on the same page! Museum work has undergone a sea change during my time at the Amon Carter, and I am so pleased to see that librarians and museum professionals – particularly those specializing in public and technological engagement – are now exploring many of the same issues. As Bethany said, “all problems are shared problems,” especially for non-profits in the business of sharing knowledge and experiences. Museums, libraries, and other cultural organizations are essential to the quality of our users’ lives, and it is our job to use technology to this end. Rather than become frustrated by sessions that focused heavily on library-specific applications, I approached the conference program with the mindset that the variety of organizations represented at the DLF Forum shared a basic mandate to create what Bethany called the “core infrastructure of the good life.”

A number of sessions either directly or indirectly addressed this idea. Beginning with the keynote, I was particularly excited to hear Bethany mention empathy as a developing research method in the humanities, just as the practice of design thinking is just starting to take root in museums. The University of Utah’s snapshot presentation on enhancing user interfaces with 360-degree photography was noteworthy because it specifically asked the question that plagues everyone in this field: how do we build connections between users and digital content? The same snapshot panel included a great presentation from UIUC’s Emblematica Online team who was trying to address that very question by designing user assessments to find not only how scholars are using their interface, but also how they are functionally using the data contained within.

In two other memorable sessions, librarians from NCSU presented their experimental ArtWall and iPearl immersion theater as well as their new Suma application, which utilizes web analytics tools to help make better design decisions for these experimental spaces. I was particularly interested in their goal of making these spaces create conversations rather than – to paraphrase the presenters – cram units of information into their users’ heads. Designers of the gorgeous Curve space at Georgia State University expressed similar goals and specifically talked about the importance of tactile, kinetic interaction in collaborative spaces, which is a growing concern in art museums. A presentation on UNC’s DocSouth project was valuable because it focused on addressing the needs of researchers using data mining and textual analysis, which is unfortunately a group that is rarely considered in the museum world, which tends to value image quality over that of text (and admittedly, metadata).

Finally, the closing plenary addressed “ideals of librarianship” that are practically identical to those of museums: openness, trust, access, and sustainability as components of community-building. While I would have liked for the closing keynote and other presenters to acknowledge the shared goals of libraries, archives, and museums, I am encouraged to know that my fields of study (libraries) and practice (museums) have become so aligned in the past decade and excited about a future where we are working together toward “the good life.”